Here’s something you probably don’t think about going extinct: languages. It’s usually the things we use on a daily basis that are the most taken for granted, and the way we communicate is one of them. We also don’t necessarily consider the variations and number of distinct dialects that exist beyond our own. Roughly half of the over 7,000 languages spoken around the world today are projected to be extinct within the next 80 years. In that context, the extent and threat to languages becomes a little harder to ignore.
Our use and consideration for dialects remains largely unilingual. In my generation, I don’t know many people who are native speakers of English who can speak more than one language. Sure, I’ve dabbled in several other vernaculars, such as German, Spanish, and French, but none of them match my championed grasp of the English language. I would absolutely say that if you aren’t born in a non-English predominant country, then you stand a better chance of being bilingual on the basis alone of learning English in addition to your native language. Dialects are being swallowed by the encompassing spread of those from global leaders, with English, Mandarin and Cantonese consuming global communication with our increased ability to connect to others across the world.
Then there’s something else many people use on a daily basis that could help reverse this situation: social media. Many small languages are consolidating their oral histories by utilizing sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and the Mac app store. Globalization works in both directions, as some of the remotest dialects have extended their voice to a global audience through these avenues of communication.
In addition, National Geographic has been acting on an initiative to salvage languages that would otherwise be lost to history by creating audio dictionaries. In this, the organization either locates or is approached by endangered language speakers, members of which then recite and record entries for the online dictionary. So far, eight of these dictionaries have been completed, containing more than 32,000 word entries from languages we might have otherwise never heard of.
Perhaps part of the reason that native English speakers are primarily unilingual is based in the fact that the physical and virtual world facilitates this. Why learn another language when everything you need is presented in familiar terms? But by recognizing just how vast and eclectic the breadth of global languages is, the fact that we as a people could lose up to 3,500 of those is a daunting figure. That’s thousands of people’s histories lost, a lifetime of experience gone. While globalization might be the culprit of such a sentence, it also provides the solution.
Codi Hauka is a fifth year International Relations student with a minor in History at the University of British Columbia, and a connoisseur of pies. She aspires to become a journalist, or, failing that, the heir to the Colbert Report. You can follow Codi’s work at The Magpie, a fake news blog she coordinates with an esteemed colleague and friend. The website is in the midst of a facelift, so please forgive its current 1990s level of visual appeal.